The Celestial Hunter also offers beguiling if abstrusely digressive essays on Plato’s Laws, the nature of Eleusinian mysteries, Zeus’s last night on Earth, Egyptian statuary, the neo-Platonist Plotinus’s disputes with Gnostics – all infused with the enviable learning of Calasso, whose favoured mode is incontrovertible assertion, sweetened with some lovely poetic passages.
He is most compelling when he writes about a favourite theme, sacrifice. Calasso considers sacrificing animals as Sisyphean nightmare whereby the atonement eternally recapitulates the crime. “Blood sacrifice was blood poured over a wrong to heal it – an operation that always had to be repeated since the wrong was always repeated.”
In The Celestial Hunter there are fascinating expositions, sparkling with insights, of Ovid, Plato, Plotinus, Athenian history, statues, ancient Egypt and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Its central preoccupation, however, is with hunters – celestial and earthly, human and divine – as well as shamans, sacrificial hierophants and early philosophermages. Here Calasso’s strengths as a mythographer are again in evidence. Never merely antiquarian, he takes the reader to where myths are still happening in a timeless present. This skill is supported by his conviction that insofar as the divine itself (tò theîon) exceeds and survives even the gods, its powers are still at work now, even if unrecognized. (Max Weber, drawing on Nietzsche, also said as much.)
At best, he writes like a poet, not a professor, in glinting, enigmatic nuggets of narrative finely voiced by his translator Richard Dixon. At a moment when atavistic kinds of peril, awe and terror seem close at hand, it feels no great stretch to share Calasso’s core belief that “The gods always return.”
The Celestial Hunter is the latest instalment in Roberto Calasso’s exploration of what makes us modern, which is also the rediscovery of what made us ancient. This time, Calasso narrates the religious prehistory of ancient Greece, from shamanic origins to the ages of gods and heroes, and then to Athens’s uneasy incorporation of the Eleusisian mystery cult. The effect is akin to that experienced by Hofmannsthal when, entering the Acropolis museum, he encountered five korai, robed female statues, standing in a semi-circle: ‘An unnamed fear… a light much stronger than real light’, a sense of ‘something liquid’ in the stone, ‘as if the eyes of the statues had suddenly turned towards me, and in those faces was a wholly inscrutable smile’.